A ruling against SeaWorld which restricts interactions between its employees and killer whales after one of its trainers was killed has been upheld by a US appeal court.
The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held on Friday that SeaWorld had violated its duties as an employer by exposing its trainers who worked with killer whales to “recognized hazards”.
The ruling means the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can require SeaWorld to limit the interactions trainers have with killer whales.
SeaWorld Entertainment had been fined $75,000 by the federal agency - a sum later reduced to $12,000 – after trainer Dawn Brancheau died in February 2010 when, Tilikum, a 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) bull orca, pulled her underwater by her hair at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.
OSHA, which is part of the US Department of Labor, told SeaWorld to resolve the by problem by requiring trainers to be protected by physical barriers or by adopting other abatement measures.
SeaWorld, which operates 11 parks around the US, said in a statement that it already has introduced new safety procedures, including removing trainers from the water during shows. Even after the court's ruling, "there will still be human interactions and performances with killer whales."
The company said it had yet to decide on whether to appeal the decision.
The Labor Department said in a statement that courts have “consistently upheld our position that killer whales pose a danger to employees who are not adequately protected.”
SeaWorld has been put under increasing pressure since the release of the movie Blackfish last year. The film depicted Brancheau's death and Tilikum's career as an entertainer and stud for other captive whales.
But SeaWorld has criticised the film as “inaccurate and misleading.”
Rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) welcomed the court decision. Jared Goodman, the group's director of animal law, said it “brings to an end the days of trainers standing and riding on orcas for human amusement.”
SeaWorld had appealed over the federal agency's application of federal safety law to an unusual workplace situation it had not regulated before.
The appeals court concluded that OSHA did not overstep its authority in bringing the action against SeaWorld.
"Statements by SeaWorld managers do not indicate that SeaWorld's safety protocols and training made the killer whales safe; rather, they demonstrate SeaWorld's recognition that the killer whales interacting with trainers are dangerous," Judge Judith Rogers wrote on behalf of the court.
She played down SeaWorld's concerns about the impact on its operations, saying that improved safety “does not change the essential nature of the business.”
Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion noting that people who work in dangerous fields in the sports and entertainment context are aware of the risks.
OSHA has “departed from tradition and stormed headlong into a new regulatory arena,” he said.
Additional reporting by Reuters